It's Safe To Go Outside, But Follow Expert Guidelines

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Shoppers wait in line at the Safe Supply outdoor grocery store at Bow Market on March 21, 2020 in Somerville, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Shoppers wait in line at the Safe Supply outdoor grocery store at Bow Market on March 21, 2020 in Somerville, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Parents know how important being outdoors is for their kids. But how safe is it for people to be outside right now?

Dr. Anita McElroy is a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children's Hospital and an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics.

Interview Highlights

On the benefits of going outside and how to weigh those with the risks

"Going outside is actually probably one of the safest things that you can do. First and foremost, it's great to get out of the house and get some exercise since we're all going stir crazy and it's an excellent activity as long as you maintain distance from other people. So going outside would be great for family units. Those are people who reside in the same household. Going outside and interacting with people who are not in your household is a bad idea."

On refraining from hanging out with other families/people/children even if you keep your distance

"You know, everyone is going to have to navigate these challenges as we go forward in what is acceptable risk. Right? Nothing we do in life is without risk. Everything we do is a risk-benefit analysis. And, we know that younger, healthier people are less likely to have severe disease. But we also want to make sure that those young, healthy people are not transmitting that disease and spreading it around to others.

"So it's really important, especially in these acute times — this really critical two to four week, six week period — that we do our best to try and stay within our family units and avoid any contact that is unnecessary with others."

On what precautions should families take before heading outdoors

"Anytime you'd go out-of-doors, at any time of the year, even when we're not in COVID season, you would certainly want to make sure you took something to prevent ticks, like a bug spray. Make sure you practice good tick protection: that's wearing long sleeves and long pants and doing tick checks after you return home from a hike and also using tick repellent or bug repellent if you're out hiking about. You'd want to make sure you brought water along.

"In the context of being concerned about exposure to COVID, I would also add to that to carry some hand sanitizer with you in case you're going to need to have direct contact with doorknobs or handles in the community around you."

On the virus traveling through the air

"This is another area in which we're constantly learning new things. There are certainly individuals who've looked at this. Some groups have published on this. The virus when generated into an aerosol, which is a really tiny, tiny particles can sustain in air for many hours. However, when you cough or sneeze, you're not usually generating lots of tiny particles. You're usually generating droplets.

"The likelihood of you having an exposure when someone wasn't directly in front of you coughing or sneezing is very, very minimal. Hence, why we say maintain six feet of distance. So even if someone did cough or sneeze right six feet away from you, you'd still have some theoretical protection.

"We don't really know exactly how long it's going to last in the air. Probably a limited time. And in fact, dilution is the solution. So being out in the environment is a better place than if you were to cough or sneeze at home because the air is constantly moving in the environment."

On how long the virus can live on surfaces

"The question about virus on surfaces has also been answered by some groups and it can live up to days on surfaces. However, those studies are all done in a controlled lab environment and in the out-of-doors where their sun and wind and other exposures, the virus is probably not going to last as long.

"Anything that other people might touch after having coughed or sneezed into their hands are potential sources of infection. We call these artificial things that we spread pathogens back and forth - fomites (note: Fomite is An inanimate object or substance, such as clothing, furniture, or soap, that is capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another.) is the term you'll hear many of us use. I would recommend against playing on playground equipment for the time being.

"If someone else touches something and they have the virus on their hands because they just sneezed into their hand or they just touch their face in some way and contaminated their hand, then they can pass that onto anything that they touch."

On bike rides and bike shares

"Bike shares have the same potential risks as any fomite, right? Again if someone coughs on their hand and uses the bike and they could deposit the virus there. If you have your own bike, that is an absolutely wonderful way to get out of the house and get some exercise. Get on your bike and bike wherever you can just maintain that six-foot distance from other individuals."

On whether children should be going to grandma's house

"I would actually discourage you from taking your children to grandma's house. Not because of the children, but because of grandma. So kids or any of us could have the virus and maybe not have overt symptoms, at least right away. And there's a remote possibility of transmitting to someone who is this highly susceptible, like a grandma when you are asymptomatic. So in the interest of protecting grandma, I would recommend not going to visit grandma unless grandma already lives in your home.

"It's really difficult with the toddlers, you know, because they don't understand what it means that you can't hug grandma. So face time is a great way to try and allow those social interactions when you can't have direct contact. If you can get your elderly friends and family to get set up on Facetime or some kind of video chatting scenarios, it's always good for the toddlers and for the elderly."

On specific advice for parents of new babies

"Nothing different than the recommendations for all individuals - - taking your baby out for a walk once the weather permits is a perfectly fine thing. If folks approach you and want to check out your baby, I would recommend that you encourage them to stay six feet away."

On other advice for parents on going outside

"This is a constantly evolving situation and every day we're learning new information. So what we talk about today might be usurped by new information tomorrow. I would do my best to try and stay abreast of the latest information that's available.. So whenever you can get outside, it's going to be great. But if you can't, it's OK.

"People need to maintain their distance, especially while we're in this critical phase.

"The whole goal here of social distancing is to distance ourselves from others socially. Because the exposure happens either from direct contact with someone or from contact with something that they have contaminated with their secretions - a cough or sneeze. Sort of the droplets that we produce when we do that. So the same rules apply to all, whether you're high risk or low risk, you really, at this point, want to avoid exposure."

This article was originally published on March 24, 2020.

This segment aired on March 25, 2020.


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